Gavin Strange

Polymath

Introduce yourself, give the audience an insight on who Gavin Strange aka Jam Factory.

My name is Gavin Strange.  I am director and designer of Aardman Animation, that is what I do for a day job, but also I go under the name of Jam Factory at night; which is my alter ego for doing anything and everything that people don’t ask me to do; just time to play and experiment. And then I got another spin off where I go under the name of Project Toy, where I just make music that is sort of wonky beats and started incorporating visuals to them. I really like creating alter egos for stuff, because you can you do whatever you want especially outside of this world. It’s nice to be just free, just doing stuff that you really want for your own satisfaction. Like, I really love the big projects that we do there, but also, I love just making my own drawings and doing what I love. You did Shaun the Sheep movie that was just released right? Yeah, yeah. I worked on the Shaun movie, which was really exciting. It was a dream come true. It was a long project as well, took six months. So, yeah, basically that is what I love to do really. I like to sort of jump between different types of projects, just because 😊.

What were your childhood influences that made you want to become a polymath you are?

That’s a good question! I mean growing up I really loved sort of video games and characters. I was exposed to characters via things like Sonic The Hedgehog, Mario, and videogames magazines, and sort of fascinated by that, and loved the world that they created. The thing is that you look at a poster or a video game cover and you just want to see more about it; this total fantasy truly intrigued me. and at the same time, I was interested in music, and really got into gangster rap during the 90s when I grew up. My babysitter at that time, when I was 11 I think, gave me a double-sided cassette tape with Snoppy Doggy Dogg debut album and I just vividly remember putting it in my little cassette player and pressing play, and I remember pushing the earphones in my ear, cause I never heard bass. The music I heard was on the radio like I didn’t choose it. So, that kind of inspired me. I’ve always liked wordplay and just the English language. And just films. Growing up in the 80s and the 90s just a huge slew of great films, interesting films. And big inspiration for me, even if it never manifested in my works, film called Akira (famous 80s manga film); its just an astonishing piece of work, it is so complicated, it is so complex in its story but also beautiful. It is a self-drawn animation, and I have never seen anything like that. Again TV, you watch whatever was on the channel was on the channel, but then someone gave me a VHS video cassette of Akira when I was thirteen and said, “you should watch this”, and then pooof blew my mind. So, it was all these things. These exciting worlds, and exciting characters, and exciting visuals that I have never seen before, which were not every day normal occurrences that was just woah! Like an overload on emotions. So, it just worked from there really.

So, where do you find your modern-day influence?

All sorts really. I’m genuinely excited by just creativity in general. I just have a real thrill for anything really. I am not fussy, you know? I can appreciate all sorts of mediums or different styles, and I just think it is such a privilege to be able to make something from nothing and to call it a career. There is one thing being interested and engaged in art and creativity and all that stuff, but actually we all are working towards it being an actual job that we can survive in the world by making stuff; whether that’s art, or design, or photography, or film, or illustration, or whatever. So, that pushes me forward. That inspires me actually to do more or to see other people make great stuff and just a) be a bit jealous, b) be a bit inspired; you know that sort of “wow! That’s amazing! Oh god why cant I do that! Its AMAZING”. It’s like riding a rollercoaster of emotions. So, that is kind of a big driving force for me still. There are great people who do great stuff and interesting stuff all the time. Just when you think that you kind of seeing it all, or you might be going through that period of… you know when you are like listening to music and you’re like “I need to listen to something new. Think I’ve listened to everything, and everything is the same” and then something comes along and you think “woah! What is this”. And sometimes it’s a reinterpretation of something you previously knew or loved but it’s a different take. And I think this same thing happens with visuals, where you just see a piece of work or a piece of typography and it just makes you… its like fireworks?  Yeah yeah, like fireworks. Something that takes your breath away. And then where it takes you, you never know. it might directly influence you. It might say “well I want to design a typeface sort of like this” , but actually it might just set all the fireworks and it just gives you the confidence boost or the intrigue to then go and do anything really. So, it’s really nice going in any direction you can and be inspired by what is out there.

We watched a lot of your talks, and you have mentioned your educational journey. So, could you tell us how it all sort of happened?

Well, I mainly knew that I loved all those stuffs growing up, but I definitely didn’t know how creative careers worked. The career advisor at school at that time all they really told you about is just getting into  different traits “ohh you want to be plumber, you want to be a painter, you want to be this or that”. And I think they never knew where to place creative people. So, I never knew I can be a graphic designer, oh I can be editor, or a photographer. But I knew I was really interested in creativity, and I did art at school and it was okay. I really loved it, but I didn’t really stand out or shine too much. There this thing, I was never really bad, nor I was really good. I was just some where in the middle. And I didn’t mind it, but I just thought that I never really excelled that much. I was some how in the middle of the road, and just accepted that. Not in a bad way, but “well, its okay. I’m just not that one of the people who is super good”.  And then, my parents were totally understanding that I didn’t want to go to university, but they always had the mindset of “we don’t mind what you do, but at least do something”. They wanted to see me going forward with something. And because I liked arts, I thought maybe a college course would be good. So, I just went to our local design school which was 20 minutes from where I lived in Leicester. And I really liked it; again, it was exciting. There were computers, and I was excited with the technology side of it because I didn’t have one at home. They had a photography dark room, they looked at lettering, and they looked at characters. So, it, again, maybe the Hodge podge effect of “oh, I’m interested in all these stuffs. I don’t know where I will go with it. But it feels like I can go, play, and experiment”. And I did that for two years, and just as you approach to the end of that course big part of it “okay, where do you go next?”. It just didn’t really… university didn’t feel as a big decision. It didn’t really appeal to me, and I think big part of it was I am just so lame. Like I didn’t drink or smoke or party, and I genuinely thought that’s all it was. So, I thought that’s a waste of time and money. The other option was to work for the industry, and it worked from there. And I basically had a two weeks work experience at a local design agency. And I just loved it; it was a real thrill. I couldn’t believe there was an opportunity that someone could trust me to be in this profession. And I was really young I was just seventeen) to have a job.  And that made me feel that this is real. This work I’m doing is real in the real world, which was a thrill. And that what kick-started me into “oh, maybe if I actually try harder, then good things will happen”. Because I just never really had the confidence boost. But that first job, that first someone said “I’m going to take you as a junior graphic designer” was just incredible. And I still have this feeling now, and that was 20 years, I am 37 now. And I don’t ever want to let that go, and for me anyway I find that it’s really important to hold on to. Because we could be doing real work, and we are not. I mean look at us; we are just drawing pictures, and filming stud, and talking. This is amazing! This is so good.

You did freelance after that, right?

Yeah, I did. So, I worked at the design agency for four years and I learned so much, and at the same time I went from junior graphic designer to be, off the chance, junior web designer. and I had no real clue what the internet was at that time. I knew it was a thing, but I didn’t really know too much. It just sounded exciting and new. So, again, someone offered me the opportunity to do something new, uhm… great, thank you for the opportunity and let’s go for it. Say yes. So, I had a mix with graphic design and digital design at this place. And then, basically, I started working on stuff in my own time, encouraged by my boss, under the name of Jam Factory just experimenting. And a local skates store (I was a skateboarder), that I was a fan of, knew that they needed more digital designs and graphic design. so, the guy that owned it told me “how about you leave your job and come work here for three days a week. The other days of the week you could do whatever you want. get your own clients. But I think you’ve got the skills to do it. What do you think?”. And again, this is someone showing you trust, and showing you encouragement, and it sort of sounds exciting. And I did, I told to the people I work with I was leaving. I didn’t really have a plan, and I am kind of proud that I didn’t have a plan. I just did it. And I think it’s just because of age; I was 22 at that time. I was still living at home all I must do is cover my rent, and my food, but you know I didn’t have a family then, I didn’t have a mortgage, and I didn’t have a car. So, the risk is quite low. Therefore, I just went with it. And then I worked another four years for myself. Doing what I did then though, I just had digital design and graphic design are what paid the bills, but then I was doing loads of stuff under Jam Factory as passion projects.  And then put all in my portfolio; I didn’t tell anyone I did it at 3 am. And it went from there.

So, how did you land your job at Aardman animation?

So, I moved to Bristol at this point working for myself. And basically, just tried to have a body of work that would pay the bills in digital and graphic design. and then character design, toy design, skateboard, clothing, and everything just put it in my portfolio. It would sit as body of work. Also, people who are looking don’t care. If you do it you could do it; its irrelevant when you did it. So, I had more diverse body of work. And then, I was really into using as many digital networks as I can to get more work out there. And Bristol Media was a big thing here at the time; where it correlated all different people doing everything and was a good platform… basically saying “I’m a digital designer. here is my body of work… etc.” and I just made sure that I would always update the latest projects and I would always try to make that at the top of my list. And one day I got an email that just said “hello from Aardman” and it was from, now my good friend, Dan. And I was just freaking out! Because I was such a huge Aardman fan! And basically, he said “we’ve got a big project coming up where we are renewing a new department in Aardman. We make interactive stuff. We are just a year or so old. We need a freelance designer, digital designer, for six months. But also, we’ve seen that you do characters stuffs and animation. So, would you like pop in a cup of tea?” and I went in for a cup of tea, and nearly 12 years later I’m still here. the project was a big thing for Channel 4 which was Ace. And because that department was new and growing, they realized that they needed to make it more permanent and just the role of senior designer came on. And I was just little to begin with… sort of “woah” I feel that I’ve worked hard for Jam Factory by that name, so “what happens? Does that name would disappear? and I get assimilated for just one company?”. I didn’t think it would because everyone there were so encouraging and sort of open, and I just didn’t need to worry about that at all. Because, actually if anything, they encouraged me to do passion projects and side projects. I actually had a little vinyl toy called Droplet and we had a launch party on Park Street, 50/50 store, and people came, which was really excited. And I went outside to just have a breathe, and then my friend came up to me from Aardman and told me “you do know that Peter Lord, the cofounder of Aardman, is in the queue to get in the exhibition”, and I was like “WHAT!” and I looked and said “Pete what are you queueing for? You’re the king of Bristol! What are you doing?”. but that meant so much that he had taken the time, that he had seen my poster that the thing is happening, and he was just interested and curious and came down with his family. And that blew my mind! That he would take that time, and that encouraged me further to be just who I am really and be excited on different types of stuff. And to keep sharing it, and then over the years I became friends with David Sproxton, who’s also the co-founder, and then Nick Park, who’s the earliest employees and famous for Wallace and Gromit. The fact that those people encouraged and welcomed me, ALL TYPES OF ME, not just senior digital designer. and again, someone gave you their trust and you want to repay it, and I just did, and I’ve done more and more. That’s why I’ve been here for that long. And, also, that’s why my job changed as well. So, the fact I became a director and a designer it’s because I’ve spent a lot of my time in my passion projects. But I would continue sharing them there and take feedback and help and support, and over the years these projects became more ambitious. And until couple of years I’ve been officially represented by Aardman as a director which meant that I was on their roaster; so, when projects come in, they go through Gavin Strange. So, I have two job roles. Which is amazing! so, I direct when things are happening, and design when design needs to happen; often both at the same time. Looking back to the original question where it all started, I’m just interested in lots of different things, different styles, lots of stuff happening at the same time. its lovely that that is real and will continue to do it. And that is why I feel so fortunate and grateful, and that makes me feel that I want to do the best I can and produce the best stuff.

How did you manage to do all these stuffs? Did you have a strategy? Or did you just go with it?

I think I just went with it. I never really had a plan, really. I really like jumping from project to project, from problem to problem. I think that is a strength actually; whereas some people are so good at staying hyper focused on one thing, and I would love to be able to do that, but I think I just discovered that maybe that is not me. maybe I am better at bouncing quicker, and that means I do things in different ways. But, I kind of learned that that’s okay and that everyone does things in different ways. You obviously want to fit in whatever is best for the project or the thing or the team or whatever you’re doing, but at the same time there is a great degree of discovering who you are and how best you work. So, yeah, I did discover that I like jumping around, and that gives me energy actually. And it’s nice to know there is a place for me, and I don’t think that will ever change, and it’s always a learning curve. I feel like I’m just as new to it and still learning new things about myself now as I did 20 years ago.

So, what would be your main rule about designing? How do you usually approach a brief or a design in general?

I must say I don’t think I have a defining principal maybe. I actually really like coming from a graphic design background, especially in term of film, because I try answering it almost like a graphic design brief in that “tell me what the problem is? What information do you want to communicate? What are you trying to get across?” and you know trying to dissect it like that almost coming that from a graphic design angle. But I just try and stay positive. Actually, a big part of it is that I love to try to be positive, and whatever happens, if things go wrong just try and act positively and try to find a solution to it. Again kind of graphic designer like look “this is the parameters you have, this is the brief that was set, this is your two colors and one typeface” and I am like “okay, that’s all I can work with”.

Thinking about limitations and how to get around them? Yeah, exactly. I like limitations and I think that’s nice. When it comes down to it, being super philosophical, you have a choice and its either positive or negative. And we are on this planet that is dying, and we are fortunate enough to do great stuff. So, you either look at it and take the challenges of “okay, I’m going to try to fix this” or “oh man, everything is awful. What’s the point?”. And of course, we all feel like that quiet frequently, but I guess you have to talk to yourself to how you are going to take yourself out of it. But again, that’s how I deal with thing; for me that feels right.  So, just realizing how lucky you are and trying to stay positive because what else are there in life? So, you have a choice are you going to deal with it good or bad?

Your designs are full of character, even to the point at which inanimate objects have something of a personality. Why do you think this is important?

Sort of coming back from being a kid, and sort of finding that charming that the idea that anything can come to life. It just feels magical. Maybe its escapism from the reality and the situation of the world is really heavy and there are a lot going on. And I guess that has always been true, you know? its easy for us at times to say “it’s awful now”, but well it has always been awful. There has always been injustice all the time. so, actually, characters and other worlds are like an escape, and you just can fall into it and you can control it, and this character could be kind or funny. So, I think its fair enough as an escape, and that is why I particularly like Nintendo. I’ve always liked Nintendo games, because everything they make is charming and sweet. Everything is a character: a bush can be a character, a tree has eyes, a star has eyes, and it sort of gives everything life. And I think that is really special, and that is an exciting thing that I love. And that is what got me in toy design as well because, again, you can take anything and sort of give it life. That is a charming escape.

Intreview conducted by: Haya Awaad, Jared Appleton, and Ru Tutton.

Biography

Gavin Strange, aka JamFactory, is polymath full of excitement and devotion to the creative industry. He is a Senior director and designer in Aardman animations. He is also a filmmaker, illustrator, photographer, and toy designer. he also authored the book: Do/ Fly.